In First-Ever Challenge, CA Court of Appeals Upholds Library's Right to Provide Uncensored Internet Access

March 7, 2001 12:00 am

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SAN FRANCISCO–In a resounding victory for civil liberties, an appeals court here has held that a parent may not force a public library to censor the Internet access of its patrons in order to control her own child’s use of the Internet, the American Civil Liberties Union announced today.

“The court’s decision in this first-of-its-kind case is a true vindication for public libraries committed to preserving the First Amendment rights of their patrons,” said ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Ann Brick, who helped argue the case for the library.

The issue of censoring library Internet access will soon be before the courts again when the ACLU files its challenge to the recently enacted federal Children’s’ Internet Protection Act.

The ACLU contends that the statute, which requires libraries that receive certain federal funds to install blocking software to censor Internet access, violates the First Amendment. That lawsuit is expected to be filed later this month.

In the California case, the parent, known only as “Kathleen R.” in legal papers, sued the City of Livermore when her 12 year-old-son downloaded a number of explicit pictures at the Livermore library and then took the disk to the home of a relative, and printed the pictures.

The Alameda County Superior Court had twice dismissed the case, in which Kathleen R. first argued that the library’s open-access policy constituted a “public nuisance,” and then argued that the library has a constitutional obligation to censor Internet access. The appeals court’s ruling, issued late yesterday, upheld the lower court’s rulings dismissing the case.

“The court’s opinion is unequivocal in ruling that libraries may not be required to blue-pencil content on the Internet, nor may they be required to take over the role of parents in monitoring the library use of minors,” Brick said.

In 1998, in a related case, a federal appeals court in Virginia ruled that a library’s policy of using blocking software to censor materials online “offends the guarantee of free speech.” The ACLU represented Internet content providers in that case against the Loudoun County Library.

In voiding the library’s blocking policy, the judge noted that the software, which claimed to “filter” out only obscene material, blocked sites including the San Francisco Chronicle as well as the web site of the Maryland affiliate of the American Association of University Women.

“Requiring the use of blocking software in public libraries creates, rather than solves, constitutional problems,” said ACLU national staff attorney Ann Beeson, one of the attorneys filing the challenge to the federal blocking software law. “Libraries have never been in the business of policing what their customers read and they shouldn’t start now.”

The ACLU’s Brick argued the case in the Court of Appeal and submitted a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the national ACLU, People for the American Way and the Freedom to Read Foundation, part of the American Library Association

The case is Kathleen R. v. City of Livermore, No. A086349; the opinion is online at

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